A member of the Yakama Nation and one of Eastern Washington's most acclaimed artists, Leo Adams is a uniquely gifted painter and designer whose house overlooking the Yakima Valley has long been considered a Northwest treasure. In 1962, when he was just 19 years old, Adams received honorable mention at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts festival along with top Northwest artists of the day Wendell Brazeau (1910-1974), William Cumming (1917-2010), Alden Mason (1919-2013), and Doris Chase (1923-2008). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Adams lived in Seattle, showed his work at Richard White Gallery (later Foster/White), and was discovered by designer Jean Jongeward (1917-2000), who made the young artist’s paintings a signature element of her high-end interiors. In 1970 Adams bought a parcel of land on the northern edge of the Yakama reservation and began building a house. Constructed with modest means and salvaged materials, the building reflects the characteristics of the surrounding landscape and Adams's creative imagination. Since 1972, he has lived, worked, and exhibited his paintings there, and the house has been featured in many architecture and design publications and countless periodicals. The book Leo Adams: Art, Home (University of Washington Press, Seattle and London, 2013), with photographs by Michael Burns and essays by Sheila Farr and Linda Tesner, honors Adams for his contributions to Northwest art and design. Parts of Farr's essay, "Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds," are excerpted here.
Leo Adams does not identify as a Native American artist and seldom uses traditional imagery in his paintings, but the deep respect for cultural values instilled by his parents and grandmother are essential parts of his character and his aesthetics.
Adams entered the world on November 7, 1942, the first of fraternal twins born to Harvey Adams (1906-1991) and Lillian Hoptowit Adams (1908-1972), respected members of the Yakama Nation. A U.S. Forest Service employee, Harvey served for 30 years on the tribal council and ranched with his father, William “Bill” Yemowat Adams (1875?-1970), a powerful cattleman and tribal elder. Lillian was a descendent of the Suquamish and Snoqualmie people and her mother, Emily Hoptowit (1873-1962?) was a tribal medicine woman who practiced herbal and spiritual healing. The twins had an older half-brother, Dee (1938-2008) -- Lillian’s son from a prior relationship.
Leo was the smaller twin, with a round face and fine features. His brother LeRoy was bigger-boned and long-limbed. LeRoy gravitated toward his father's care, farming with him from an early age and working cattle at his grandfather's ranch. Leo stayed close to his mother and grandmother. In the springtime, Lillian would take him out into the hills to dig roots, which they would dry and store in cotton sacks for winter food. "She taught me all the spiritual and the earthy things of the reservation and all the natural things that went on in the world," Adams said ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
The twins grew up surrounded by a big extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. When the weather got hot, they all moved up to Piscoe Meadows on the slopes of the Cascades, into big summer encampments where the men and boys would work the cattle and everyone would gather to feast and celebrate at the end of the day. Leo stayed in camp with his mother and helped with food preparation. When he was 7 years old, his grandmother Hoptowit handed him a small basket and pointed him to the huckleberry bushes. "If you fill this basket seven times and return it to me," she told him, "it is yours" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds"). Leo did -- and in addition to the heritage basket, took away a valuable lesson: If you want something, you must work for it.
In some ways Leo grew up immersed in Native traditions, yet he also was trained to disregard them. Lillian and Harvey Adams had been educated in the boarding school system where their language and customs were forbidden. They spoke English at home and did their best to make sure the boys would fit in and do well at public school. Leo recalled, "My parents never really taught us the Yakama language, because in the years I grew up, people were ashamed of being an Indian" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
From an early age, Leo loved to make things. His mother taught him how to craft baskets and dolls, to sew, knit and crochet. His favorite thing was playing house, creating a place he could share with others. When the children went out to the willows to play war games -- Indians against white people -- afterward they'd all come join Leo in whatever playhouse he’d made and have crackers and water. For him this act of sharing and hospitality was the most natural thing in the world, and the most satisfying.
It was a tradition in the family for the patriarch, the twins’ grandfather Bill Adams, to give a gift of cattle to each boy in the family. LeRoy had received that gift, but not Leo. Although unspoken, it was clear enough to Leo that his grandfather didn't like him and at a certain point Leo remembers being forbidden to go to his grandfather’s house. "I was teased a lot as a kid because I was very effeminate," Adams said. "I think my grandfather disliked that about me as well; it's probably what he disliked the most. My twin brother is the opposite, you see" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
When Leo was around 8, his mother told him that his grandfather had cursed him at birth and that her mother had performed rituals to reverse it. The reason for the curse was never explained, but Adams says that in earlier times among the Plateau Indians, a weaker twin was sometimes sacrificed for the good of the other. Whatever was behind it, as Leo grew older his grandfather's animosity continued to haunt him.
Native American kids were a nearly invisible minority in the Wapato public schools but the Adams twins stood out for their accomplishments as well as their striking physical differences. LeRoy had sprouted to 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighed more than 200 pounds, and played for Wapato High's winning football team. (Also on the team, a year ahead of LeRoy, was a talented player named Bill Douglas, who went on to become star quarterback of the University of Washington Huskies in the early 1960s.) Leo, a soft-spoken honor student, stood 5 feet 4, with a slight build. Handsome and fine-featured, he was well known as an artist.
Becoming an Artist
As a senior at Wapato High, Adams already had been drawing, painting, and making things for years when he signed up for a class taught by the school's new art teacher, Charles Smith (b. 1935). An abstract painter who had studied with Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) in California, Smith had a more sophisticated take on art than many of his small town students had yet encountered. In Adams he discovered a young artist with the skills and persistence to make most anything he envisioned and an imagination that soared off the charts. Smith recalls: "I must say this about Leo. From when I first met him as a senior in high school, everything he touched -- a ball of clay, a painting -- it was just like he had magical powers: He could just instantly turn it into something great" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds"). Smith remembers telling Adams he should be proud of his Native heritage, be true to himself, and that someday he would be a great artist because of it.
Another student in Adams's graduating class, Gene Juarez (b. 1942), remembers that kids sometimes teased Adams for his unconventional manner, but when it came time for art class, attitudes changed: "In an art class, he was envied and admired -- I mean, I am talking about genius stuff" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
Juarez, who went on to become the Northwest's premier hair styling entrepreneur still has vivid memories of taking Charles Smith's art class -- mostly because of the artistry of the 17-year-old Adams. "He was far and away the best," Juarez remembers. "Smith talked about it, Leo did it" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
After Adams graduated from high school in 1961, he spent a year in Los Angeles at the Art Center school, focused on the applied arts of illustration, advertising, and industrial design. But he wasn’t happy there and returned home to the reservation. He tried Burnley School of Professional Art in Seattle, but that didn’t satisfy him either. What he really wanted was to paint, not do illustrations and advertising art.
Adam’s next idea was to take an extended trip to Europe, to see the great art and architecture he knew from history books. The trip was a turning point for him. One of the main things that impressed him was the grand sense of scale in the architecture he saw, something he'd previously experienced only in the landscape. The expansive feeling he got from the soaring, high ceilinged rooms and the mystery and anticipation created by ornate, beautifully proportioned entryways inspired Adams.
Back in Yakima, Adams stored away those ideas and began to focus on his painting. Adams had entered a relationship with Noel Kelley, a social worker at the tribal clinic in Toppenish, and moved in with him in a Yakima fourplex where Adams held art shows for invited guests. The paintings -- of flower bouquets in Indian baskets and American primitive-style portraits -- sold easily. Adams met John Gasperetti, whose parents, Minnie and Mario, founded the popular Yakima restaurant and watering hole that bears their name, and before long Adams paintings were on display there. The Yakima movers and shakers who frequented the restaurant were charmed by Adams's work. Along with dinner, they bought pictures off the walls, and the Gasperettis commissioned Adams to paint murals in a small private dining room at the restaurant.
Adams was developing a following in Seattle, too, where his paintings won awards alongside some of the Northwest's leading artists at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts festival, then one of the region's premier venues. In 1963, when Adams took first place in a religious art competition at Seattle University, Seattle Times art critic (and soon to be novelist) Tom Robbins (b. 1932), reviewed the piece, noting the "cool, dry work whose linear anatomy oscillates from objective lyricism to synthetic cubism" ("Religious-Art Show Provides Major Challenge").
It was around this time that Adams took an apartment in Seattle to more effectively promote his career. In February 1968 he began showing at the Richard White Gallery in Pioneer Square, (which later became the Foster/White Gallery), and continued to place his paintings in contemporary group shows as well as Indian art exhibitions. Soon anybody reading the art columns in Seattle newspapers knew his name. In addition to exhibitions at Richard White's gallery, Adams displayed paintings in the lobby at ACT Theatre, placing them in charity auctions for PONCHO and Children's Orthopedic Hospital, and in group-shows at various galleries around Seattle and in Eastern Washington. In 1968 Adams won first place in the annual Artists of Central Washington exhibition in Yakima. Coming in second was his former art teacher, Charles Smith.
Adams began marketing paintings directly to clients, with help from an independent agent, Roberta Sherman. She and Adams would set up private studio shows, inviting a select list of people and any friends they wanted to bring. "With each show we would have a line waiting to get in," Sherman recalled. "If I said the show went from 11-3, we'd have a line at 8:30. We would sell out immediately" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
Jongeward and Interior Design
By then the interior design community had discovered Adams, and it was in that circle he found one of his most powerful and influential allies: Seattle's doyenne of decorating, Jean Jongeward.
Jongeward was the go-to person for clients who could afford the sleek elegance of her designs and the prestige of her name. She had a sharp eye for quality and immediately saw Adams's talent: She took him under her wing. Adams credits Jongeward with teaching him her philosophy of color and the trademark palette she used so effectively. Jongeward believed that interior spaces worked best in a low-key scheme of neutrals -- a quiet frame for Seattle’s sparkling views of water, trees, and mountains. For Adams, who grew up in the arid landscape of Eastern Washington, a color scheme of gray, beige, and brown was nothing new. He likes to refer to it as “dead rat.”
The influence between mentor and student went both ways, according to David Mendoza, a former Seattle arts administrator and close friend of the designer. Jongeward hired Adams to paint a ceiling design and murals at her own showcase house on Queen Anne Hill and got him other work as well. In 1974 Adams created a splash with his opulent chinoisserie wall paintings at Seattle's Sunset Club, a women's club on First Hill. That led to a commission the following year for a 21-panel "abstract motif" mural at the new Hong Kong Shanghai Bank downtown.
Upscale home interiors photographed for The Seattle Times lifestyle section often would have a Leo Adams painting as the focal point. Owners of a trendy new Capitol Hill restaurant, Henry's Off Broadway, hired Adams to paint a decorative mural. By 1974 Adams's work was in such demand that he decided it was time to give up his studio sales. He signed on for exclusive representation with gallery owner Don Foster (1925-2012), who had taken over the Richard White gallery and made Foster/White the city's premier art showroom.
The Leo Adams House
As his career took off in Seattle, Adams began planning a house back in Yakima, on the reservation. On a knoll above Ahtanum creek, not far from his grandfather's old ranch, he found a piece of land that suited him. He purchased the property and then, unexpectedly, asked his father if he could have his grandfather’s rundown, long abandoned house, which Harvey had planned to burn down. Leo had the small, two-story house moved onto his property, did a ritual cleansing to dispel any negative energy, and used the house that he had once been forbidden to enter as the core of his ambitious building project. He and his friends tore down walls, installed beams, and opened the place up; they reversed the direction of the stairway, expanded the kitchen to include a broad counter for cooking and flower arranging, as well as a pantry and casual eating area.
In addition to the expansive architecture he had seen in Europe, Adams was impressed with the Asian art and aesthetic principles he’d been exposed to at Seattle Art Museum and Seattle design shops. The older part of his house shows the influence of Japanese architecture, with exposed beams, wood cabinets with sliding doors, boxy paper light shades, and niches for displaying pottery and art objects.
Meanwhile, a spacious new addition was going up to encompass the old building, with a high-ceilinged living room, formal dining room, library, an upstairs bedroom and bath, and a roomy basement studio with north-facing windows. Decks and outdoor seating areas were added, connecting the house to the surrounding landscape. A covered entryway led to the garage and, before long, to another surplus house, moved onto the property to renovate for Noel Kelley. Leo’s relationship with Noel had changed, but the two remained close friends and Noel oversaw construction while Leo was working in Seattle.
For several years Adams had been painting in Seattle during the week then driving to Yakima for weekend work parties at the house. In 1972, with the exterior of the house completed, Adams moved in and began to finish the interior. During this time, to the surprise of his friends and dismay of some, Adams got married to a woman he’d met in Seattle, Sandra Frederickson, and they had a child. The marriage was difficult and ended in divorce. Adams lost custody of his daughter, Savanna, who was raised apart from him -- a sorrow he prefers not to talk much about.
Hard Times and Old Things
The following few years were a dark time for Adams. He quit his Seattle gallery and stopped painting for a while. Noel, who had stayed close to the family but moved into an apartment in Yakima during the marriage, returned to his house in the complex. Adams channeled his energy into his house. He spent long days out driving or walking around, scavenging for furniture and building materials, like the now legendary time he came upon a piece of an old refrigerator that had been used for target practice, rusted and pocked with bullet holes. "I loved the texture of it so much I had to throw it in the back of my car," he said ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds"). That battered piece of metal, which Adams cut and shaped around a fireplace opening, became one of the most photographed and commented upon design elements in the house -- an emblem of Adams's creative genius.
Pulling off something like that may seem easy, says Seattle interior designer Terris Draheim (b. 1944), an old friend who was with Adams the day he spotted the battered refrigerator. At the time, he couldn't imagine why anyone would want to cart home a piece of junk. But when he returned a few months later and saw the fireplace surround, his jaw dropped. "I mean, my God!" Draheim said. He admits that, as a designer, he's tried at times to replicate some of Adams's inventive ways with found materials: "It's an abysmal failure. It just doesn't happen. It can't be done" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
Much of what attracts Adams to objects is their sense of history and the patina of time and use they carry. The lack of outward perfection that causes others to pass over them is often what Adams likes best. "What is junk to someone else is not junk to me. It’s the way the artist can use it in a different way, to give it new life and new energy, so it responds in a way that excites me and excites someone else as well" (Farr interview).
"There’s an honesty about it," says Draheim. "Cleansing may be an overstatement, but there is some catalyst that occurs when you’re there that you come back refreshed -- and grateful for the experience ... . It’s very cathartic" ("Leo Adams: Between Two Worlds").
Seattle writer Linda Humphrey (b. 1944), an editor for Metropolitan Home for 35 years who has written extensively about Adams's house, says she went there once on assignment with acclaimed architecture photographer John Vaughan (1952-1995). After he’d worked for a while, Vaughan stepped out of the house, his hands shaking. "He’d photographed [the homes of] Barbara Streisand, Cher, been everywhere," Humphrey said of Vaughan. "He told me, 'This is one of the best things I’ve seen. I just want to get it right'" (Farr interview with Linda Humphrey).
Over the years, Adams's house has become a focal point of Yakima cultural life. It serves as a gallery for periodic exhibits of Adams's paintings and the work of other artists. Adams also shares the house as a sought-after destination for receptions and tours to benefit arts organizations and charities.
A Complete Artist
For Adams, the house is an extension of himself, evolving with the seasons. He is continually making new objects, working with available flowers and plant material, and refreshing the arrangement of rooms. Adams structures each day around the creative work that is his life’s focus.
In his 30s, Adams told an interviewer his goals: “I hope to be a really complete artist ... . I don’t want to be just be a painter. I want to be an artist that does everything, as much as possible -- to have new challenges around every corner ... a constant kind of stimulation for the imagination to work with. I think that is what I really want out of my life: a completeness” (Harrington interview).
Decades later, Adams is still on the same path.